Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday claimed Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, is viewed as a “disgrace” to his faith by other members of the religion.
“I have a lot of Jewish friends,” Putin told an annual economic forum in Saint Petersburg. “They say that Zelensky is not Jewish, that he is a disgrace to the Jewish people.”
“This is not a joke and not an attempt at irony, because today neo-Nazis, Hitler’s disciples, have been put on a pedestal as heroes of Ukraine,” Putin added, according to the TASS Russian News Agency.
Putin later noted that Zelensky was “a man with Jewish blood” before adding that “he covers for these freaks, these neo-Nazis, with his actions.”
“Why do you put Nazis on a pedestal?” Putin asked rhetorically regarding Zelensky.
Former Israeli minister and Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky responded to Putin by saying Ukrainians should be proud of having elected a Jewish president.
פוטין: חבריי היהודים אומרים לי שזלנסקי לא יהודי – הוא בושה לעם היהודי pic.twitter.com/hwaj5uIhAg
— Amichai Stein (@AmichaiStein1) June 16, 2023
“Zelensky unites the Ukrainian people against barbaric aggression, and we Jews can be proud that a representative of our people plays a historic and significant role in uniting the whole world for the sake of protecting our future,” he said in a statement.
The US State Department’s antisemitism envoy, Deborah Lipstadt, said, “President Zelensky’s Jewishness has nothing to do with the situation in Ukraine.”
“Putin’s continued focus on this topic and ‘denazification’ narrative is clearly intended to distract from Russia’s war of aggression against the Ukrainian people,” Lipstadt said.
Since launching his war on Ukraine in February of last year, Putin has repeatedly sought to paint it as an effort to “denazify” the country, a claim rejected by the majority of the international community as baseless propaganda.
Moscow also claims Ukraine’s treatment of Russian speakers in the Western-backed country is comparable to the actions of Nazi Germany. These allegations have been contested by the Ukrainian government and the country’s Jewish community.
Putin said Moscow “must fight” neo-Nazism, adding that Russia had suffered enormous losses during the country’s fight against Nazi Germany in World War II.
“We will never forget it,” Putin said. “Why is no one listening to us?”
Putin’s remarks appeared to go even further than ones made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier this year in which he conceded that Zelensky is Jewish but claimed that even Hitler had “Jewish blood.”
Those comments sparked widespread outcry, including from the US and Israel.
While Zelensky does not profess to be religious, he identifies as Jewish and told The Times of Israel in 2020 that he was raised in “an ordinary Soviet Jewish family.”
“I never speak about religion and I never speak about God because I have my own personal opinion about it,” he said in the interview. “Of course, I believe in God. But I speak with him only in those moments which are personal for me.”
Zelensky has said that his great-grandfather and three of his grandfather’s brothers died as a result of the Nazi invasion of Ukrainian territory. His grandfather and his grandfather’s brothers took up arms against the Nazis in the Red Army; his grandfather was the only one to survive. He did not specify whether they died in combat or in the extended massacre of more than 1 million Ukrainian Jews that the Nazis carried out, often with local collaboration.
His grandmother, he has said, survived because she left Kryvyi Rih for Kazakhstan; almost all of the Jews who remained were murdered. A Holocaust memorial not far from his parents’ home in Kryvyi Rih was defaced in January 2020.
Zelensky has said he has relatives who moved to Israel in the 1990s, during the wave of Jewish emigration from the newly dissolved Soviet Union. He also visited as an actor and comedian, and performed in venues throughout the country. As Ukrainian president, he has visited just once, for the Holocaust commemoration shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
JTA contributed to this report